It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair... (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
Ten miles north of Copenhagen, at the Royal Castle of Fredensborg, John Doe was standing between the two heads of state on a podium erected especially for the occasion, overlooking the baroque gardens with a long, dead straight view down the Wide Avenue leading to Lake Esrum. A whole year of arduous mediation between the parties in the Near East had now officially reached its conclusion with the signing of the first of two treaties between the sovereign states of Israel and Palestine. He had insisted on Fredensborg, and the Queen had given her permission. Many political and religious dignitaries on the global scene were present. Security measures were extreme; the entire event was a potential nightmare.
On an otherwise overcast day, the sun suddenly parted the clouds and endowed the ceremony with a biblical gleam, like the finger of God by Michelangelo. He took a step forward between the two leaders, grasped their hands, led them forward and placed them next to each other at the grass-green table upon which the treaty lay ready to be signed. But at just that moment he heard an ominous, buzzing sound. He looked up and saw the drone half-way down the Wide Avenue heading straight for him. It resembled a spider from another universe. He heard the missile being launched – the rest was silence.
A cacophonous bang rang out across the parterre of the Danish Royal Castle of Fredensborg. The missile launched from a drone was shot down only few meters from the principal characters of the ceremony. When the dust had settled, the peacemaker, John Doe, lay bleeding from his head on top of the seemingly unharmed leaders of Israel and Palestine. The peacemaker had tried not only to protect them, but also peace itself. The sirens from multiple ambulances broke an eerie silence, while security people scrambled to come to the aid of victims of the assassination attempt.
Karen had been standing in the background just outside the garden hall from whence the dignitaries shortly before had stepped out on to the podium to witness the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and the newly founded state of Palestine, finally universally recognized and admitted to the UN as its 194th member state. This was to a high degree the work of her husband, John Doe, whom she had met three years ago when he was taken to the Trauma Ward of the National Hospital in a deep coma which lasted forty days. Shortly hereafter the bond between the 13th warrior and his nurse was strengthened and they were married by a catholic priest right here in the chapel at Fredensborg Castle.
However, it was not the only reason why John had chosen this 300 year old royal country seat for this very special ceremony. The castle was built by King Frederik IV to mark the ending of the Great Nordic War in 1720. Since then the castle had been an oasis for Danish royalty; they had been happy here, and the place had been permeated with an extraordinary sense of peace which almost ritually had been passed on from generation to generation of royals. John had hoped that this mild ambience would inspire the two parties about to embark on part two of the peace process which involved drawing of borders and establishing mutual security guarantees; and not to forget the Gordian knot, Jerusalem, also known as the City of Peace. Would John be as lucky as Alexander? The answer was still blowing in the wind.
From her position right at the centre of these unique grounds, she took in the baroque gardens, inspired by the country seat of Louis XIV. Her gaze reached down the seven radiating avenues which framed the park with its castle, sculptures, orangery and meticulously straight planting; new and old in utmost consequence and harmony, 120 hectares of protected land in the middle of the Kings' North Zealand. This was the perfect spot, a stronghold of peace; here years of strife and injustice would finally be ended and corrected.
At exactly this moment she heard an ominous sound like that of a monstrous insect; she sought her husband with a fearful glance, but then all hell broke loose in a deafening explosion. The blast wave knocked her over on the podium which was now blanketed in thick smoke and pervaded by the stench of gunpowder. When she raised her head and looked across an utter chaos of people reeling under the shock, her eyes found John Doe, bleeding from his head, lying lifeless on the podium erected on the parterre in front of the Royal Castle. The security guards scrambled like headless chickens in a macabre dance of death, desperately trying to bring their clients to safety. At that moment in time, no one knew if this was just the beginning, or if this was it; a drone attack on the the two heads of state and the peacemaker.
She crawled over seemingly unharmed people in a death panic in order to reach the man whom she had loved for three eventful years. His security guards were attending his lifeless body, and when one of them saw her, he reached out and pulled her over to her husband. She instantly realized, with a twinge in her heart, that his wound was serious, perhaps a shell splinter dug in behind his left ear; blood was flowing, and she forcibly put her feelings aside and removed her thin summer jacket, ripped it to shreds and pressed the torn, white fabric against her husbands head-wound.
Suddenly, she was once more head nurse at the National Hospital, and with a violent effort she assumed her professional role and carried out the relevant procedures. John Doe was once again her patient, and she knew that she had to get him to the Trauma Ward at the National as soon as possible. She looked up and saw the rescue party on their way from the Reserved Garden from whence she could both see and hear the rotor blades of the helicopter start up. It felt like forever, but only a couple of minutes had passed since the missile launched from the drone was shot down by a security officer, a round which most likely saved the life of the two heads of state as well as a number of other dignitaries.
When the gunpowder smoke had settled, it turned out that only John Doe had been hit, but at that time he was already on his way to the National Hospital in a helicopter belonging to the Danish Air Force, seconded to the royal family and only permitted to land in the Reserved Garden on account of the trees and the sculptures in the old baroque gardens. At the peacemaker's side sat his wife who the last two years had been on an extended leave of absence from her job as head nurse of the Trauma Ward at the National Hospital, in order to accompany her husband to the Middle East and help him with his relief work in the region.
She had immediately called her boss of many years', Bente, who was the chief physician of Trauma and the surgeon most likely to operate on John Doe. When the Air Force helicopter took off and flew over the gardens towards the lake, she caught a glimpse of a clearing in the woods where kings once used to hold hunting exercises, and where, on a hill, she and John had held their wedding reception in a small, newly erected arbour. Now he lay here by her side, helpless like a new-born baby. The paramedics had stopped the bleeding, but he had still not regained consciousness. Karen thought back to three years ago, when an unknown John Doe was brought to the Trauma Ward after having collided with a royal stag. Back then he had been in a coma for forty days. The helicopter was now rapidly approaching the National Hospital.
DAY 1 – 10 Extracts
The royal stag, his big eyes filled with such an accusing glare. Firmness, innocence and perhaps a suggestion of empathy. He is done with me. We do not owe each other a thing. Yet, he is warning me, pointing with his mighty antlers. Your danger lies behind you. I turn around and see a monstrous black steel spider, but too late. The stench of collision, smoke and fumes illuminating the silence of the woods. The roar of the stag, and he is gone. I am alone in the next tunnel. At the other end is that strong, almost unbearably clear light, drawing and luring with people and feelings of desire and comfort. Who is that old man squeezing my hand and leading me to the promised land?
Weak but regular.
John, hold on.
I am inside a kaleidoscope. What is that infernal noise? Where are you, Karen? Am I in Denmark? Where did the stag go? The light is so bright.
What have we got?
Bente! Thank God you're at work.
Karen! Holiday over!
Good to see you, too.
Stable but unconscious.
Right. Scan him.
No way, Karen. He's your husband now. You know the rules.
What are the odds, Bente? A third time?
Tina called. She's an anchor on TV2 NEWS now. She asked if she could come. Hansen from the intelligence service, PET, meant it was best to give access to only one journalist. And her we know.
I can't think of that now. Get John scanned!
Okay. Olsen, get moving!
There is that light again, so bright, but also soft and friendly, enticing, drawing me down that narrowing tunnel. I see contours of people waving, but I cannot feel the path.
How long has he been unconscious, Karen?
A little over an hour. What did the scan say, Bente?
A piece of shrapnel is lodged behind his left ear.
Calm down. I'll get it out. I called Lillian at Johns Hopkins. She'll be assisting me via Skype.
I want to, but I cannot move. I can see myself lying in a machine. I am an eye in the ceiling. The machine is moving. With me. And without me. I am not sure.
Male patient, unconscious close to two hours, missile attack, a piece of shrapnel lodged behind left ear. I'm going in. Lillian, are you there?
Yes, dear. I can't fucking believe it! Hi, Karen. Be brave now.
The light in the tunnel. I am moving forward. I am coming now! The stag turns his back on me. A spider, a spider!
Blood pressure dropping!
Heart stopped! Get going!
That's it. He's back!
We've got a pulse!
What now, Lillian?
Remove it and close. Then artificial coma.
In a coma? Again?
Take it easy, Karen. Lillian and I have got this.
But for how long?
Let's wait and see. Lillian?
Shorter than last time. Much shorter, Karen.
Thank you, both of you.
You've got my number. Beep me.
The light is getting weaker. The buzz of the spider is declining in the distance. Nothing lasts for ever. I am so sorry, Karen. I did not want this for you. The web of the spider sticks to my soul like a straitjacket. All is a blur, floating in a world without mercy. God and country aborted like historical freaks by the electronic gadgets of modernity. My brain has been attacked by a monstrous insect. The spider from hell has entered my castle of peace. Nothing is longer sacred. Anything and anybody can be attacked. Anywhere. No one is safe. Mea culpa.
John, it's me, Karen. I hope you can hear me. Like you could the last time. It' s my only hope. I'll be by your side until you wake up. John, forgive me. I'm just so scared.
To be or not to be, perchance to dream. Am I there again, in the web of my own dreams? And what will be revealed on this journey beyond the safe borders of consciousness, beyond life and death? Is my journey coming to an end? My God, do not abandon your humble servant now when my mission is only half-way completed. Peace on the desert sands where once your son walked, it must be re-established. Give peace a chance, dear God. I am an old man with a young man's workload. I promised your deputy on earth to finish my mission and lead your people out of the desert and into the promised land. It is not as if it has not been done before. Please, God!
Karen, you beeped me.
His blood pressure is so low, Bente.
Let me see. Yes, but his pulse is also very low. Almost like a bear in hibernation. I've read about it, but never experienced it myself.
Is that a good thing?
Let's hope so.
The royal stag with his eighteen points. Where did he come from? Is he a messenger from the gods, an intermediary between heaven and earth? Is that where I am? Is this the geography of my coma? Now he is shaking his head, his enormous antlers flashing in mid-air like the tree of life in a post-atomic landscape. The waste land where spring is the cruellest season and where the survivors grow daffodils out of the dead soil. Is this the example from Lebanon; pragmatism is the solution? Learn to accept your differences, no one sect shall rule; the Treaty of Taif ended the civil war but sectarianism was never abolished and now this system of doom permeates the entire region. Until today. Today we were going to sign the first part of a new Taif accord. It was my intention to negotiate the second part. God willing. Insha'Allah. Only in concert, Islam, Christianity and Judaism can deliver on the second part of the agreement. The stag looks straight into my soul, emits a roar and disappears out into a summer-clad meadow. His message is clear, he has spoken to me. I am left lying in the desert. For how long this time, my God, for how long? Oh, yours is a cool answer, a true blessing is this soft breeze. It caresses my cheek and forehead and awakens in me the happiness of embracing your messenger, a friend in need, a fragrance of cedar from the mountains of Lebanon.
For the past two centuries, thanks to fire and the wheel, man has been able to burn exorbitant amounts of fossil fuels thus creating a doomsday scenario on our planet. Global warming will slowly but almost certainly destroy our ability to sustain life. Our lives. Are we concerned? A little. Are we doing anything about it? A little. Are we insane? Just a little!
I am back in the Bekaa Valley. As far as I can see there are refugee camps clustered around small villages like ants around a sugarplum on the woodland floor. Khaled tells me about the thousands of people who are now his responsibility. And every day new people arrive from the civil war in Syria. The international relief organizations do as well as can be expected on a limited budget, but they are simply not able to cope with this veritable exodus from the neighbouring country where people after having lived a comfortable middle-class life for years now share the plight of all Palestinians. This landscape hosts pure misery and horror and is a witness to man's most abominable instincts. We are now closing in on our destination, the village of Arafat.
We leave the procession and step into the small memorial grove, where a simple grave marked with a black stone is placed next to the cedar-tree in whose shade we used to drink our tea in the afternoons. On the stone there is a short inscription with Mira's name and dates and a short text in both Arabic and English: Consecrated her life to Palestine. I look at Khaled who nods. I kneel down in front of the grave and lay down my wreath of flowers on the slightly raised, maroon mound. Karen does the same and we make the sign of the cross. Then we rise, and Khaled places his wreath next to ours while whispering Allahu Akbar. I notice a tear in the corner of their eyes, and suddenly I can feel the salty taste of a life in my mouth.
Inside, this enormous Bedouin tent is extravagantly furnished with oriental carpets all over the maroon earth; in the back there is a hallway leading to various rooms with modern facilities like in a proper house. In the middle of the tent stands a huge and richly adorned round table with hand-carved chairs, and along the sides of the tent luxurious furniture is arranged in groups. I look at Khaled in amazement, but he just kisses me on both cheeks and makes that special noise with his lips and tongue indicating that nothing is good enough for the 13th warrior.
Adding structure and organization to an area like the Bekaa Valley is no easy task. Potential conflicts are innumerable. How you approach and greet people is essential. So Khaled takes me to task. All participants must believe they are the guest of honour, the most important person in the tent, as he puts it. I know a little about the social conventions of the Middle East from my time in Lebanon, but now I am faced with a situation where the smallest error could spell disaster. Greeting down here is an art form. It is all about the signals your send, to the person in front of you but more importantly how those signals are perceived by the onlookers dissecting every little detail of your greeting in order to determine if there is any loss of face. Face in the Middle East is everything. Nothing else really matters. To succeed as a peacemaker I must make every single person in this tent feel that he is the most important person at the round table and that without his say so, no deal will be done. A tall order indeed.
I run my eye over my round table. Here sit 29 knights in search of a grail. Khaled welcomes them by praising all shamelessly; he is a true master of the art called bullshit in the morning, bullshit in the evening and bullshit at supper time, and he gets away with it to standing ovations. This is the Middle East. The atmosphere in the big tent in Arafat is now so benign that I can proceed to the point of this meeting. It is now human destinies will be shaped.
And here we stand in this grand Bedouin tent in the village of Arafat half a century later, still fighting for exactly the same things as back then; freedom, equality and liberty; still standing and motivated by an overwhelming urge to help people in need in a region of a the world where fate has treated entire populations unfairly. And as we bid farewell to our benign knights of the round table, after such a successful meeting, I look up at the range of mountains called Lebanon and see the sun's last rays shining down through the soothing, evergreen splendour; and I can not help thinking that this could be the time for miracles.
Implementation of the plan must commence immediately, or else we will very soon be running a human disaster area and not a modern refugee camp; the thought of witnessing the further humiliation of the wretched is unbearable. I can only try to concentrate on the plan within the plan which is really quite simple: Instead of giving a man a fish, give him a fishing rod and teach him how to fish. Or Pay it Forward: Do something good for three people, then they in turn do something good for three other people, and in the end, if the chain is not broken, we can save the world. While we are waiting for the skilled relief promised, we must mobilize all the locals and the refugees into a working army with a structure which affords a place and a function for all the people in the valley. A beautiful thought, some will say, but impossible in the real world. Perhaps, but if one does not try, there will be no evidence either way, just mistrust. And I refuse to be led by negative logic. If you want to do it badly enough, you can. Yes, you can. We can. Together we shall aim at the stars and hope to graze the treetops. And remember this: There are no secrets in Arabia.
Khaled returns in triumph. The fire of hope is burning in his eyes. His logic is magnificent; if Camp Bekaa Valley succeeds, a two state solution of the Israeli Palestinian mother of all conflicts can also succeed, for then there will be evidence. And suddenly I realize that my friend Khaled entertains great expectations for our collaboration in the Levant. What he wants from me is a proposition far more spectacular than setting up a modern refugee camp in the Valley, it is now something much bolder than either of us could have dreamt of when we met all those years ago in a peaceful and prosperous Beirut. This would strike at the heart of the Middle East; the creation of a Palestinian homeland to end all the senseless fighting and once again grow crops and hope on the killing fields of war-torn lands and give back peace of mind to the people of Israel, Syria and Palestine. And Camp Bekaa Valley is the stepping-stone. The expression in my dear friend's eyes unveils his revelation while instilling in me the courage to go fishing; for the souls of the meek and the wretched right outside my doorstep. The eagle is coming! Prepare for landing!
Khaled and I have worked together like brothers, we understand and supplement each other in a way which gives us the authority necessary to build a bridge between foes; perhaps it is important that he is a Muslim and I am a Christian. Perhaps not; but this is the idea Lebanon survives on. It is a symbiosis strong enough to support a bridge over troubled waters. My catholic background makes me somewhat of an exotic but also impartial mediator of compromises and solutions when negotiations grind to a halt. I have no part in the conflict; I work only for a higher cause. This particular, immediate cause being a modern exodus of refugees from a war-torn Syria. This done, on to the grand price. Seize the day!
I catch a glimpse of Karen standing in the background just outside the kitchen observing the mood of the tent. She looks so small and lonely in her beautiful Palestinian outfit, and I cannot help feeling a twinge in my heart that I am so near but oh so far away from this woman who snatched me from the claws of death and led me back to life. She has chosen to stand in the background on this day of triumph, having been brought up in a small, northern country at a time when modesty was a virtue. Without her by my side, I would not have been able to throw myself into the fray again. She convinced me that this is my life, making peace between age-old foes, building bridges where there were none before, guiding the young and the helpless through life's adversities. It is Karen who should receive thanks and applause from all the dignitaries present here today, but she prefers giving to receiving, she chooses the shadows over the limelight; the meek shall truly inherit the earth. I love her.
I wake to the sound of Arabic voices. I open my eyes and feel a sharp pain emanating from my right temple. It is light outside but dark in here. My eyes are slowly getting accustomed to the darkness; I am in a small room with a door and a window with bars. Chained to a bedpost in the corner of a mud-built space, I am sitting on a dirt floor with a hole in the ground for a toilet from whence a hideous smell reaches my nostrils. I vaguely remember the explosion. Suddenly the door opens and a man dressed in black with a hood over his head and face enters the room carrying a long curved knife. Caught by Islamic State on my way back from Rome after being appointed papal peacemaker by Pope Francis. Just my luck!
At a large and very beautiful, hand-carved desk in the middle of the room sits the eye doctor from Damascus. The Monsignor has told us that the pope had to ask the Russians to get Assad to agree to this meeting. The Syrian dictator is not interested in yet another Middle Eastern state that hates his guts. But you don't bite the hand that feeds you, so here we are in Damascus. The former eye doctor is a tall, thin man with a somewhat oddly shaped face that does not immediately make you think of intelligence. But beware of appearances, they can be deceptive. He speaks in a feeble almost caressing tone of voice bringing forth sound on inhaled air. He offers no handshake and eyes us with poorly disguised dislike. I note that he has taken lessons from his friend in Moscow concerning chair etiquette. We have been placed on very low chairs which means that we are seated roughly half a meter lower than Assad and thus compelled to look up at his face. In order to enforce the insolence, he presses a button which raises his chair another five centimetres.
We are ushered into a room in the basement under the UN building. We sit down at the oval conference table and I cannot help admiring the walls adorned with photographs. They all portray scenes from 9/11, that fatal day in the history of the USA and of the world. It was the day we all witnessed the face of pure evil up close. The age of innocence was definitively over, we were now facing hate beyond comprehension, evil outside the realm of reason, a faceless foe. And ever since that fateful day, fear has held us in a solid grip. We try with all our might to fight this Hydra, but every time we cut off one of its beastly heads, it grows two new ones. It is like a cancer in the fabric of our societies. And the cure is yet to be found; and until it is, we are heading for global Armageddon. That is why I and my two Sancho Panzas are here today in this basement room under the UN building. Ready to make a deal with the dogs of war who guard the doors of hell. May God have mercy on us all.
I glance at my two companions and realize that we indeed are a dynamic trio; three old men on the threshold of a historic breakthrough in a conflict spanning decades and generations in a part of the world governed by oil and the relentless strife between three monotheistic religions about a holy city called Jerusalem. But we have a long road ahead of us before we can sleep.
Khaled has installed and old-fashioned system of ventilation in our grand tent, practised by the Bedouin for thousands of years. All eyes are on the peacemaker whose job it is to reconcile the parties in this mother of all conflicts, this clash of civilizations. On my right sits the spokesman for all Palestinians, Khaled, and on my left sits Golda, who speaks for the Israelis at these historic proceedings. Now it is up to me.
I do not know where my words came from. As if uttered by a stranger they just flowed from my mouth and described what my heart is full of. Judging by the applause, those were the right words at the right moment, most likely divinely coached by someone who knows for a fact that there is more between heaven and earth than is thought of in our humble imagination.
You cannot just stand by and watch while a third of the world's population lives without rights in squalor and poverty. Those who can must step up, when those who want to no longer can. That is what we are doing every day here in the Bekaa Valley. May our camp become a symbol not only of the ancient Phoenicians and their beautiful cedar trees, but also of the new spirit of good will towards all men and of peaceful co-existence across ethnic, religious and political boundaries, not just here in the the Middle East but all around our planet. I stand outside my formidable Bedouin tent where today the leaders of the world come together to cut the first of two Gordian knots, and when I look up towards the top of the range of mountains called Anti-Lebanon, I see a golden sun rising over its eastern summits. Carpe diem.
EPILOGUE – ONE WEEK LATER
He was still alive, sitting in his rowing boat on the calm waters of the lake. All his life he had been seeking the answer to life's big question: What is my purpose? And now that he had found the answer, it was of little consequence. The last two years in Arafat had taught him that. The meaning of life is just that; your life, the way you choose to live it. On the other shore along the sprouting green rushes in the water's edge, he caught a glimpse of two swans majestically ploughing the virgin surface of the lake; lovers and friends for life, a god's blessing of a life-long partnership. Suddenly a cry from a bird of prey cut through the silence and when he looked up, he saw an osprey dive through the air like a missile and then explode on the surface of the still water; shortly after to be reborn and ascend, firmly gripping a fish by its talons, just like the Phoenix rising from the ashes. Both these imposing creatures spoke to the peacemaker in him; they spoke of the value of faithfulness and instilled in him the strength never to give up. Life is a journey, and he had not yet reached his final destination. And such a journey always begins with a small step. Then one more and yet another. He had only just begun. Tomorrow the ceremony at the Royal Castle of Fredensborg would be carried out on the other side of the lake. Then the journey would take him back to the Middle East. Next step Jerusalem. He looked up at his house in Denmark. From hence his world began. On the porch he could make out the contours of a woman. She was his life. He smiled and felt the faint smell of cedar trees and continuing destiny.
Michael Ford | Lergraven 5, DK-3140 Ålsgårde | Tlf.: +45 48717071